Writing a Persuasive Essay (with Given Nonfiction Sources) from a Prompt

(An Essay with No Citations Requested)

Example prompt: As we’ve seen in our course on religious literacy, religion can be a positive or a negative force in the world. Many argue that religion divides the world and creates conflicts, terrorism, and wars. Others see religion as unifying people and creating movements that save lives in times of natural disasters, poverty, or war. If you had to take a position one way or the other, would you argue that religion is a positive power or a negative one? After carefully reading all of the sources below, use at least one to address this prompt in a well-written persuasive essay. Be sure that you directly reference and analyze one of the sources, examine religion's impact on humanity's intellectual, social, and cultural progress, and explicate your position while touching upon the invalidating factors of an opposing viewpoint.

      From "University of Oxford" written by the Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica


The University of Oxford is an English autonomous institution of higher learning at Oxford, Oxfordshire, England, one of the world’s great universities. It lies along the upper course of the River Thames (called by Oxonians the Isis), 50 miles (80 km) north-northwest of London.


Sketchy evidence indicates that schools existed at Oxford by the early 12th century. By the end of that century, a university was well established, perhaps resulting from the barring of English students from the University of Paris around 1167. Oxford was modeled on the University of Paris, with initial faculties of theology, law, medicine, and the liberal arts.


In the 13th century the university gained added strength, particularly in theology, with the establishment of several religious orders, principally Dominicans and Franciscans, in the town of Oxford. The university had no buildings in its early years; lectures were given in hired halls or churches. The various colleges of Oxford were originally merely endowed boardinghouses for impoverished scholars. They were intended primarily for masters or bachelors of arts who needed financial assistance to enable them to continue study for a higher degree. The earliest of these colleges, University College, was founded in 1249. Balliol College was founded about 1263, and Merton College in 1264.


During the early history of Oxford, its reputation was based on theology and the liberal arts. But it also gave more-serious treatment to the physical sciences than did the University of Paris: Roger Bacon, after leaving Paris, conducted his scientific experiments and lectured at Oxford from 1247 to 1257. Bacon was one of several influential Franciscans at the university during the 13th and 14th centuries. Among the others were Duns Scotus and William of Ockham. John Wycliffe (c. 1330–84) spent most of his life as a resident Oxford doctor.


Beginning in the 13th century, the university gained charters from the crown, but the religious foundations in Oxford town were suppressed during the Protestant Reformation. In 1571 an act of Parliament led to the incorporation of the university. The university’s statutes were codified by its chancellor, Archbishop William Laud, in 1636. In the early 16th century, professorships began to be endowed. And in the latter part of the 17th century, interest in scientific studies increased substantially. During the RenaissanceDesiderius Erasmus carried the new learning to Oxford, and such scholars as William GrocynJohn Colet, and Sir Thomas More enhanced the university’s reputation. Since that time Oxford has traditionally held the highest reputation for scholarship and instruction in the classics, theology, and political science.


2. From Protecting Religious Freedom in a Multicultural Canada" written by David Seljak

Many Canadians are confused about the re-emergence of questions of religious diversity and freedom in public debates about human rights. Some thought that religion had ceased to be an important element of identity and social dynamics. Others assumed that the “separation of church and state” – along with legal guarantees of freedom from religious discrimination (the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms 1982, for example) – had put the issue to rest. Yet it is now 2012 and religion is front and centre in a variety of public policy debates in areas as diverse as citizenship, security, employment, municipal zoning, education, healthcare, justice and human rights. The new public presence of religion has inspired the Ontario Human Rights Commission – which already has a fairly progressive policy on religious freedom and protection from discrimination based on “creed” (Ontario Human Rights Commission, 1996) – to revisit the question.


…our major social institutions in the realm of education, healthcare and social services are largely structured after their Christian predecessors – even though each has been thoroughly secularized. Canadian public culture is still marked by Christian values about what is allowable, reasonable, desirable or extreme. Consequently, secular Canada is more open to religious communities that have adapted themselves to liberal Protestant norms. The controversies we see around religion in Canada today occur when members of various religious communities refuse to live by those norms. For instance, when they run afoul of generally accepted norms of gender equality by wearing a hijab on a soccer field, or when they expect their religion to play a role in public life, for example, by asking for state funding for Jewish day schools.


Many public institutions – including the Ontario Human Rights Commission - have found themselves having to rethink the protection of religious freedom and the promotion of religious diversity. They will need to counter traditional forms of intolerance and discrimination, be sensitive to emerging forms of intolerance rooted in trans-national conflicts, remain attentive to the emerging confluence of racism and religious intolerance and develop sensitivity to lingering Christian privilege. Finally, they will need to work towards a broader definition of religion that includes the diversity of religious belief and practice that we find in Canada today. For, in the end, we cannot protect what we cannot see and how we define religion will determine what we do – and do not – see as worthy of protection and promotion. Attention to Canada’s new religious diversity gives us the abilities to see, for the first time, the outlines, qualities, and limitations of Canadian secular human rights regime and its protections of religious freedom and diversity. Such a project will guide us in our transition to a new definition of secularism, religious freedom, and religious diversity.


3. From "Investigation of the Relations between Religious Activities and Subjective Well-being of High School Students" written by Ali Eryilmaza

Subjective well-being is the most important part of the field of positive psychology, and has also been investigated by many researchers. Seligman (2002) noted that engaged life, pleasant life, and meaningful life are the most important indicators of individuals’ subjective well-being. Religion and religious activities might be considered as a part of meaningful life (McCullough et al., 2000). If individuals have meaningful, engaged, and pleasant life, they tend to be healthier, more satisfied within marriage, more cooperative in social life, more prolific at work, more apt to observe the rules mandated by citizenship, and much better at coping with stress (Diener & Seligman, 2002; McCullough, 2000; McCullough et al., 2000; Van Dierendonck & Mohan, 2006). Additionally, positive psychology studies indicate that if students have higher levels of subjective well-being, their capacities and perspectives will broaden, and they will tailor the effects of negative past experiences (Fredrickson, 2001; Hefferon & Boniwell, 2010). Thus, the investigation of the relations between religious activities and subjective well-being might provide an important contribution to the related literature with respect to know the direction of these relations.

4. From "Why Religion Matters: The Impact of Religious Practice on Social Stability" written by Patrick Fagan

…there is ample evidence that:

  • The strength of the family unit is intertwined with the practice of religion. Churchgoers[7] are more likely to be married, less likely to be divorced or single, and more likely to manifest high levels of satisfaction in marriage.
  • Church attendance is the most important predictor of marital stability and happiness.
  • The regular practice of religion helps poor persons move out of poverty. Regular church attendance, for example, is particularly instrumental in helping young people to escape the poverty of inner-city life.
  • Religious belief and practice contribute substantially to the formation of personal moral criteria and sound moral judgment.
  • Regular religious practice generally inoculates individuals against a host of social problems, including suicide, drug abuse, out-of-wedlock births, crime, and divorce.
  • The regular practice of religion also encourages such beneficial effects on mental health as less depression (a modern epidemic), more self-esteem, and greater family and marital happiness.
  • In repairing damage caused by alcoholism, drug addiction, and marital breakdown, religious belief and practice are a major source of strength and recovery.
  • Regular practice of religion is good for personal physical health: It increases longevity, improves one's chances of recovery from illness, and lessens the incidence of many killer diseases.

Stephen L. Carter, professor of law at Yale University, points out that "One sees a trend in our political and legal cultures toward treating religious beliefs as arbitrary and unimportant, a trend supported by rhetoric that implies that there is something wrong with religious devotion. More and more, our culture seems to take the position that believing deeply in the tenets of one's faith represents a kind of mystical irrationality, something that thoughtful, public-spirited American citizens would do better to avoid."[138] However, the available evidence renders such opposition unreasonable.

…Congress, and the Senate in particular, should lead a new national debate on the renewed role of religion in American life. With his recent guidance to school administrators on prayer in school, President Clinton has opened the national discussion. The Senate once was the chamber for debate on the great issues of the day. It is time for it to take up that role again on the relationship between the practice of religion and the life of the nation, on the health of America's families and the content of its culture.



  1. Begin thinking about your essay by finding the question you are to answer. First, find the question mark in the prompt and then determine what is being asked. Often, some background information will be given before the question is asked. Usually the question will end with a question mark; however, sometimes the question will be given in a statement beginning with a word like discuss. An example would be, "Discuss whether or not religion is a positive or negative force." In the example prompt, the question has been bolded. Note that after the question, the teacher gives directions for how to organize the essay.
  2. Then make sure you understand the prompt. In a testing situation, you may not be allowed to use a dictionary. Ask your teacher if you can use a dictionary or get help from him/her because if you don't know the meanings of words in a question, it will be very difficult to write an acceptable answer.
  3. To understand the prompt/question, put it into you own words to make it as simple as possible: Is religion is a positive force or a negative one?
  4. Next, look at the rest of the prompt to find out how to organize your answer. The teacher has written that you are to use the given sources in your writing to explain and support one of two positions. One position is that religion is a positive force. The other position is that religion is a negative force. The teacher says you must "examine religion's impact on humanity's intellectual, social, and cultural progress, and explicate your position while touching upon the invalidating factors of an opposing viewpoint." Your teacher has given you a plan to organize your essay. You will have a six paragraph essay with an introductory paragraph, a paragraph about religion's impact on intellectual progress, a paragraph about religion's impact on social progress, a paragraph about religion's impact on cultural progress, a paragraph that considers an opposing viewpoint (and what factors make it weak), and a concluding paragraph.
  5. Click here to look at the complete sample persuasive essay for the prompt (part of which is pictured below). The sample essay is labeled to show you how to organize your own essay.